Developer: SideQuest Studios
Release Date: December 4, 2008
Shoot-'em-ups, or "shmups," have seen in something of a decline in the past several years, their numbers a far cry from when they were staples of arcades and early consoles, such as the NES and the Genesis, thanks to a colorful collection of brilliant releases. Capcom, Irem, Konami and Treasure, among many others had become household names, cited alongside the titles that had made them great, such as Ikaruga, R-Type, 1943 and Gradius, respectively. In the arcades, developers such as Cave and Psikyo would unleash bullet hells by the bucket load with Dodonpachi and Strikers 1945, humiliating the reflex-challenged with pixel-sized hit zones and screen-burning effects carpeting every scene with deadly projectiles.
While the genre may have fallen out of sight behind the glitzy glamour of today's high-priced and highly marketed titles, it still continues to draw in fans thanks to independent efforts such as Last Hope from NG.DEV.TEAM, which had given Dreamcast — and even Neo Geo — fans something new to play as late as 2006/2007. The Internet's use as a mass media conduit would also enable hobbyists to easily share their love for the genre with countless freeware shmups, especially from Japan, many of which show off an impressive palette of sophisticated elements in using 3-D models, detailed sprites reminiscent of work done by the big names in the business, and even Rez-like simplicity. With Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony getting into the online game to deliver new and old titles, shmups may have found a new niche alongside Castle Crashers, Little Big Planet and Stardust HD.
Soldner-X Himmelsturmer was a surprise PC release last year, with an equally interesting development history. Play-Asia, popular online distributor of all things import-related for gamers, had teamed up with European developer, SideQuest Studios, on a concept for a PC shmup. Similar to Penny Arcade's venture into giving something back to the community by working with developers Hothead Games on their own game, Play-Asia and SideQuest Studios would even go so far as to promote a Collector's Edition rivaling that offer to the console crowd. A year later, the PSN Store would add the game to its catalog with several improvements made specifically for the PS3 faithful. Although it is without some of the extras that shmup fans might have wanted to add to their collection of art books and soundtracks, Soldner-X brings a solid action-packed experience to the console.
The name of the game has nothing to do with a German jet pack, but it does play into the thin story told between each stage, with some less-than-impressive voice acting. If you're interested in the details, the main Web site for the game fills an entire page with fiction, but suffice it to say that there's an evil power awakening somewhere in the galaxy, and it's up to you to take the fight to the enemy and destroy it. Soldner-X is the 10th prototype fighter ship developed to fight this darkness and the last hope for humanity to stop the scourge. Guess who the pilot is?
Soldner-X Himmelsturmer offers two-player co-op in case you want some help, but it's only for local controllers, so don't expect to drop coins into someone else's game across the wire. There's plenty here for solo players to get involved and test their reflexes. Several difficulty levels are available ranging from Very Easy to Impossible to help control your frustration factor, and as you play the game, an in-game rank slowly improves, opening up new options such as increasing the number of continues that you have to see the end of this gauntlet. Fortunately, there's a tutorial to help go over the finer points of the gameplay, and as you pass through each stage, they become unlocked for use in the Training mode.
Soldner-X is a side-scrolling shmup as opposed to being a vertical one, likely to make the best use of space on today's widescreen monitors and televisions, to which SideQuest Studios has alluded. It also looks great running at an advertised 1080p at 60fps without any slowdown, despite how busy some of the scenes can get. SideQuest's artists have certainly delivered plenty of beautiful backdrops to distract the player; ruined cities, underground industrial complexes, spinning planets, and diving into a gas giant are only some of the scenes to which players will be treated with this budget shooter.
It also borrows the talents of the musician responsible for the tracks heard in Last Hope by Rafael Dyll to deliver an atmospheric techno-pop sound to drive the on-screen action with a perfect match of hectic and old-school rhythms reminiscent of the early shmup scene. There's even some voice acting in the game that accompanies the action outside of the story-based stills, paying homage to some of the battlefield chatter that other shmups have used, such as Technosoft's Thunder Force V whenever a boss arrived. Here, they're directed at the player's performance which not every player may appreciate when it berates them for dying.
Soldner-X is your typical shooter but with a few twists to help it stand out from the crowd, such as a health gauge similar to what veterans may remember from Capcom's 1943. The title also heads out into battle with two standard weapons: a regular shot weapon and a lightning gun. Using these weapons depletes a cooling gauge over time and, once empty, forces a switch to the next weapon, although the player is free to switch whenever he wants before that happens. Additional weapons, such as a close-range flamethrower and a bow laser, have limited uses and once they're done, they're done until you can find a replacement.
The chain system that it uses to power up your weapons improves by killing as many similar enemies as possible, explaining why the game loves throwing plenty of cloned cannon fodder your way. As a gauge fills up and turns green after it reaches a certain threshold, the player is encouraged to switch to another weapon and build up the next chain level. Once that level is reached, the player can switch the weapon again and release a small extra in the form of an upgrade, such as a faster shot or multi-shot enhancement. Sometimes the chain only requires you to switch twice to fill two levels, but it varies.
Switching a weapon before the current chain level gauge is completed will ruin the chain progress, forcing the player to start all over again. Sometimes it's unavoidable if you haven't been keeping an eye on the coolant gauge and are forced to switch anyway, but the system is an interesting twist to simply holding down the button and hoping for the best. When the chain is maxed, switching out to release an upgrade extra can be a tactical decision that can change the way you approach the action.
There are also quite a few extras built into Soldner-X, such as secret keys that you can discover by destroying certain enemies. Collecting at least four in every stage unlocks a bonus stage with its own challenges, and playing the game and doing well eventually unlocks extra credits and improves the player's in-game rank. The player is also graded depending on how well he fights through each stage, with a letter given to his performance, with an "S" ranking awaiting only the very best. With the PS3 release, there are also Trophies to earn and an active leaderboard that players can compete against for the top score or for most enemies downed, pushing plenty of incentives onto pilots' plates.
Unfortunately, the weapons that you are given are pretty lackluster, especially the flashy lightning gun that looks as if it should deliver Zeus' justice to your enemies only to pinprick most of them, especially bosses, with weak damage, regardless of the chain level you manage to maintain. The boss fights are challenging, but visually aren't very exciting or imaginative. There's also the matter of how unbalanced much of the game's difficulty feels. If you've never tried a shmup before, the default difficulty level might frustrate you to the point where you'll never want to see another one again.
In particular, the second stage slams the player with switchback mazes and timed barriers, something that shmups generally only introduce in the last few stages in order to better scale the challenge and not scare away players. Cheap shots — such as exploding mines that can't be shot but detonate if you fly too close to them and a hit zone that is somewhat beefy compared to its shooting profile — may also turn off players. Much of the action can also become quickly repetitive because of the vast number of cloned enemies that flood the screen to help feed the chain system.
As nice as the graphics can be, they also tend to get in the way by obscuring bullets and enemies with overly gratuitous explosions instead of keeping things fast and simple. With practice, it becomes easier to manage, but not every player in today's market may want to spend the time to try something that may appeal only to old-school shooter fans who reminisce about the days when developers Compile and Toaplan were at the height of their power. There's really nothing here that fans of the classics haven't seen before and has been done better by other studios, and curious newcomers may be better served by those titles instead.
With Soldner-X Himmelsturmer, SideQuest Studios and Play-Asia have delivered a solid shmup that checks off all of the basic requirements, but if you simply need a shmup fix that takes advantage of your PS3, it really isn't a bad deal as long as your patience can hold it together.